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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, March 10, 2014

3 Fascinating Points to Consider When Discussing Religion in Writing

More LTUE-inspired posts today. Yea! 

So, I've mentioned before that I went to a panel by Michael Collins and Orson Scott Card about religion in writing. It was a great panel. They discussed the religions of great fantasy writers such as C.S. LewisJ.R.R. Tolkien, and yes, Mr. Orson Scott Card, and what role religion plays in their writing.

(Note: Being a Christian myself, and given the fact that Christianity was the main focus of this panel, I'll be using Christian allegory for examples in this post. However, you could substitute any religious figurehead such as Buddha, Muhammad, etc. The same principles will still apply to whatever religion you are patterning your story after.)

Orson Card started out by saying that C.S. Lewis once said his books--meaning The Chronicles of Narnia--were never meant to be allegorical. Now, that may sound a bit ridiculous--it did to me the first time I read it--but Mr. Card said that he completely believed Lewis.


1) Because the best examples of religion in writing don't start out as blatant allegories. They simply end up that way in the minds of readers. If the writer is true to the story, and comes up with a universally logical dogma, it will automatically lend itself to being an allegory of true world religion.

Don' get me wrong. It's not that you can't start out with a blatant allegory and make a go of it. This has been done successfully, but the instances where it's done unconsciously are better by far, because they the story takes form naturally, rather than trying to force it to mold to a pre-made template.

Now, there are two major archetypes for good in literature:

a) the unconscious god-figure and

b) the transcendent

Examples of a) would be characters like Aslan or perhaps Aragorn--actual characters that represent some aspect of a god-like figure. B) is something more like the Force or, for the Wheel of Time fans, the Source. Rather than a concrete figure, it's a transcendent magic of some kind that permeates everything in the universe at once. Most forces for good in literature fall into one of these two categories, or some permutation of them.

But if you want to use religion in your writing, how do you keep it from being a blatant, planned allegory? 

The answer is this: Don't write a "figure of Christ" and put him/her/it into your world. Rather, make sure you're familiar with your world, and then figure out, if there were such a figure there, what would he look like? What form would the figure take in this particular world?

I think C.S. Lewis does a particularly good job of this. He didn't stick a man who seems an awful lot like Christ into the middle of his world. Rather, he asked himself, what would that figure look like in this world? Narnia is a world where animals are as intelligent as humans. They understand and differentiate good and evil, and respect the magical hierarchy of the universe. It makes sense, then, that the true king of Narnia would be a king of beasts, or a lion.

Lewis knew what he was doing!

Other points when using religion in your writing:

2) Don't require your reader to decide whether or not they believe in the religion you are drawing from. Religion can exist in writing without proselytizing. In other words, don't be preachy. The characters or society can be a part of the religion without the author trying to shove it down their readers' throats. There are two main ways to accomplish this:

a) Creation of a fictional religion in your fantasy world. Having the characters or society in your world be religious can make for a more complex and interesting story, but the religion should exist only within the confines of the story. 

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series does a good job of this. The people in his society are all deeply religious, and their religions do drive the plot to a great extent, but those religions exist only within the cultural confines of his world. He, the author, isn't preaching them at the reader.

b) Patterning a story or plot after a true religion, but using it only to drive the plot, rather than to actually quote doctrine, or anything similar, within the text. 

In a way, this is exactly what fairy tale re-tellings are. If we think of the classical fairy tale as our religion, we use the pattern of it to drive our story, probably with a twist of our own thrown in. We do not, on the other hand, preach the doctrine that, if you are sweet-tempered and do what your evil stepmother and sisters say, a handsome prince will come and rescue you. We are only patterning our plot after a well-understood trope, and using it to tell a great story.

A word about the evil side of religion in a story. 

We more often see solid, devil-like villains than transcendent evil to match the transcendent good of the Force. In fact, the only thing I've ever seen that comes close to transcendent evil was in The Neverending Story with the Nothing. And even that doesn't entirely fit the bill. There's good reason for this.

More often than not, evil cannot survive as an entity unto itself. Evil is the negation of good, but it cannot create anything on it's own. Therefore, it makes sense that evil could not permeate all things like good can. Then nothing would be created. Ever. See what I mean?

So keep that in mind when coming up with the good vs. evil dynamic in your world. 

Overall this was a fascinating panel and really got me thinking about the good vs. evil systems I use in my own writing. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts about it, though!

What do you think about the religion discussed herein? Is there a better example you like to use to help you in your writing? What other tips do you have for using religion in your writing?


  1. This is really interesting. I guess I like the idea of letting a reader's heart guide their interpretation, but it might depend on the audience you are writing for, I guess. You know, as I read this, I thought of the music of U2-- similar maybe?

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    1. I read the Narnia Chronicles as "god is not nice" in college, but as a kid I remember thinking: "This lion is great". Each of these stories you bring up have in common that I read more into them as I got older. Maybe the thread a writer can pull is to place just enough religion in the story so further thought leads to a grander whole than simply stating the theology of a world. Good article.

      Also, sorry for double-commenting. I do not always internet well.

  3. Setting out to write a religious themed book it's always wise to consider whether your needs and purposes might be served better by writing non-fiction, a pamphlet perhaps. So much consciously religious fiction comes across as condescending, preachy and often unreadable.
    Good article; thank you.